Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Community College Colin. "I Know What I'm Doing is Wrong."

I started teaching part-time at this large community college in the Midwest two years ago. I was ABD for the first year, but have since finished my doctorate. I've had no luck in the job market, so each semester I fill out the preference forms at the CC and wait to see how many classes I'll get in the coming term - and of course then discover how much (or little) money I'll have to pay bills, buy groceries, etc.

I live on my own, even though my parents are only about 40 miles away. They happily offer to supplement my salary, and I admit I've taken a few $1000 "loans" from them over the past 2 years to cover things like a broken down car and unexpected dental bills.

But the $2200 a class I get is extremely important to me being able to keep myself fed and afloat as I enter another job search year. So I've spent a good deal of time trying to do a great job.

In my first month at the college, I met Old Man Orson, the self-proclaimed "Dean" of the part-timers, a guy who's in a different department than me, but someone who I see nearly every day in the faculty workroom. Orson is all right, if a little bellicose. Over time Orson has given me lots of advice about doing this job well. He's not looking for a real job, has retired from state government a number of years ago, and teaches for fun. But his view of things at the CC has always alarmed me a bit.

His first real advice to me came while he and I and several other newbies were doing a final exam grading session in the same seminar room. He said, "If there's one rule here, it's this. If you want classes next semester, make sure you don't flunk anyone." Someone in the group sorta laughed and Orson looked at him. "You doubt it? Go ahead and try it and tell me how it works out."

As a first semester person at that point, it chilled me a bit. I was looking down at some grades that were quite a bit south of passing, and I admit I hesitated. I didn't just want classes, I needed them. I changed Fs to Ds and felt a little sick about it.

As a couple of more semesters have passed, I've noted a few part-timers who are no longer among that newbie group. Orson's noticed it too, and one day said, "Remember Seth? He flunked half his class. Wonder where he is now?"

So in my classes this semester I find myself doing things I know are wrong. I'm going out of my way to accommodate students who are doing nothing for themselves. I'm extending deadlines, changing requirements. Orson's "advice" about keeping students happy has overwhelmed any particular idea I have about offering rigorous classes. My students are so lazy, so unmotivated, so incapable of thinking for themselves, that at times I start to think that it makes almost no difference if they pass or fail to me. Nobody, it seems, wants to be here. They come late, miss weeks at a time, and turn in the most desultory work. And I let them. And I keep them up to date with endless emails summarizing what they're missing, what they should do next. And I get up at 6 am each morning to check email, to make sure I haven't missed any requests for help over night. There's never anything. If they don't care, why should I?

When I started to inquire around and talk to other part-timers, people my age and older, I found their students were similar to mine, and their actions were, too. We're not rocking the boat. We're massaging the students and getting them through. Nobody feels like what we're doing is right or wrong. We're just cogs in the wheel. We're trying to stay below the radar, not wanting to cause a fuss or get a bad evaluation.

I have a real faculty mentor, other than Orson, I mean, but I've met her only once. She's never visited my class, never talked to me about teaching. She sent me the standard syllabus in the first semester and had a 4 minute conversation with me on my first day on campus. I've queried her a couple of times about things I didn't understand and all she ever did was tell me that I could find the answers in the faculty handbook. I get my student evaluations electronically at the end of the term, and I suppose someone else does, too. I get an email telling me when and where I teach, and that's it. As long as grades get turned in I have absolutely no contact with the school at all. I only ever see other part-timers, and now I feel like I'm a bit of a veteran myself.

The first time a newbie comes up to me for advice, I want to have something better or brighter to say than what Orson told me. But I just can't think what it would be.

I know what I'm doing is wrong deep down. I know that students pass my class without having actually completed college work. But I can't risk getting a bad evaluation, losing the tiny amount of money that I need in order to keep the lights on at my apartment.